Seluma Out To Improve Penan Children's Future


June 19, 2007 10:34 AM

Seluma Out To Improve Penan Children’s Future

By Melati Mohd Ariff

MIRI, June 19 (Bernama) – The morning rain was quite heavy when this writer chanced upon 33-year-old Penan volunteer, Seluma, at the canteen of a logging camp in Baram located some 300 km from here.

The soft-spoken woman, along with four Penan schoolgirls – Dora, Chrismazal, Salvina and Helda, had put up for the night at Samling Global’s Kem Kelesa.

Seluma is scheduled to continue her journey to bring the four girls who attended school in Bario and were in the midst of their school holiday, back to Long Main, a Penan settlement in Ulu Baram.

They will hitch a ride on a Samling truck, but this is only for the first hour as there is no access road to Long Main.

Accompanied by several men, Seluma and the schoolgirls have to walk to Long Benalih. This will take one and half hours before jungle trekking to Long Lellang for the next two hours.

They will then proceed to Long Main, a journey that usually takes another hour during normal weather. If the weather is rough and unpredictable, the journey may take hours longer.

Bringing the four schoolgirls to Long Main is not Seluma’s responsibility but as she was in Bario, the Penan woman decided to volunteer for the job.


Despite not having sufficient school education, Seluma has a noble vision for her people, the Penans.

Seluma managed to reach only Form One at a secondary school in Marudi. Her poor parents planted paddy on hill slopes for their livelihood and this had prevented Seluma from continuing school.

“I wanted to continue my schooling but had no choice as my parents cannot afford it, transport was also difficult,” said Seluma.

Seluma smiled when this writer pointed out that her name is similar to that of the late national songbird Saloma, wife of legendary actor, singer, director and comedian Tan Sri P Ramlee.

“My father picked up the name,” she responded coyly.

Many had thought that her parents would marry Seluma off after she dropped out from school. But they were mistaken as the second of three child was allowed by her parents to decide her own future.

After remaining idle at her home for several years, one of Seluma’s uncles helped her to register as a volunteer with the Sarawak Chief Minister’s Office.


For Seluma, being a volunteer is her way to contribute towards improving the standard of living of the Penans, particularly in her home settlement of Long Main.

"There was nothing much for me to do in my village. I must do something to help my people.

"My parents were not against me doing something good as they did not have the money to send me to school.

Seluma admitted that initially it was difficult for her to adapt to the life of being a volunteer.

Apart from the need to be highly disciplined, a volunteer must be ready for all situations. By attending basic training, Seluma strengthened her resolve not to easily give up when faced by difficult situations.

Seluma has been a volunteer for 14 years. Despite tying the knot eight years ago and with four children, Seluma is not yet ready to leave her life as a volunteer.


For the first three years of her life as a volunteer, Seluma was based in Long Sait, located about one day’s journey on foot from Long Main. In Long Sait, Seluma worked with another Penan volunteer from Long Sepigen, a man by the name of John Lajo.

Apart from teaching young children at a kindergarten, Seluma also taught the elderly folks in the Long Lait settlement how to plant vegetables and fruit trees apart from organising gotong-royong work.

As she was given basic medical training, Seluma also provided treatment for sick people in Long Sait.

Seluma also expressed her satisfaction over the changes that swept through Long Sait.

"As compared to 10 or 20 years ago, the changes are significant in terms of education, cleanliness and method of farming. Years back, the villagers depended on sago which they harvested from the jungles. Now we have taught them how to plant sago trees using seedlings.

“We have also taught them how to plant paddy in fields, which provide better yield, instead of cultivating the crop on hill slopes apart from planting fruit trees like banana as well as green leafy vegetables like spinach and choy sam which they can also sell at logging camps and other settlements,” she said.

After the three-year stint in Long Sait, Seluma was assigned back to her home settlement of Long Main. She was the only woman among the four volunteers sent to the village.

“There is no respite in my daily schedule…it is always full. People know that I am rarely at home. I had to divide time between family and duty,” said Seluma, adding that she is fortunate to have an understanding husband.

“If there is no support from my husband, then I would not be able to perform my tasks”. Seluma’s mother and elder sister are taking care of her four children who are aged 12, nine, eight and five years old.


Seluma has high hopes for the Penan children to progress as she herself had experienced a difficult childhood, shifting from settlement to settlement.

According to Seluma, her grandfather, the Long Labit-born Bong Sigau, had practised a nomadic life for his family before deciding to settle down at Long Main.

Her grandfather’s decision proved to be fruitful as Seluma’s uncle Uneng Bong went through primary and secondary school before finally getting a job as a teacher.

Seluma said she wants to continue her grandfather’s effort for the sake of bringing progress to the Penans, particularly those residing in Long Main.

She does not want the Penan children of Long Main to drop out from school as via education, they can play a significant role towards bringing changes to their kinsman.

Seluma said she wants the Penan children to know the hardship that had to be endured by their elders.

"Whatever it is, we must do it on our own as others may not be able to elicit the changes from us. The change must come from within ourselves.

“The children must try hard to come out of the hardship that shrouds them but they should also not forget the way of the Penan culture and tradition,” she said.

Seluma said she would remain to be a volunteer until the time she thinks that the settlement she is staying in has achieved progress and development.

The Penan volunteer also advised the children of Long Main to study hard and obtain academic success instead of growing to be mere volunteers.

“Life as a volunteer is never easy. I want them to continue their education and one day they can become doctors, lawyers or police personnel. That is a much better way for the settlement to make and enjoy progress,” Seluma said, ending the interview.